Human impact on forest cover in Europe during the last glaciation

This is the first is a series of blog posts based on papers discussed at our “Amsterdam Palaeoecology Club” meetings. The APC meetings are organized to promote palaeoecological discussion and to help the scientific development of our MSc and BSc research students. At each meeting we discuss a paper and the progress of individual projects. Short summaries of the papers and discussions are then made by the student introducing the paper. First up is MSc researcher Rianne van Duinen with her thoughts on Kaplan et al. (2016).

Monkey on a stick
Rianne on field work in Twente during the 2017 edition of the BSc Palaeoecology course at University of Amsterdam

Human impact on forest cover in Europe during the last glaciation
By Rianne van Duinen
(currently studying for MSc Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolution track at the University of Amsterdam)

We discussed the paper Large scale anthropogenic reduction of forest cover in Last Glacial Maximum Europe by Kaplan et al. (2016) which was found by the group to be super interesting and it incited a lot of discussion. The paper was mostly concerned with the anthropogenic influences and past vegetation of Europe. The main conclusion was that humans had a very big impact on forests during the last glacial period through the use of fire. The authors suggest that human actions are the explaining factor for the low amount of forests cover suggested by pollen records during the last glacial maximum (c. 21,000 years ago). The suggestion from Kaplan et al. that human modification of forest cover through fire during the glacial links with a recent study from Sevink et al. (2018) that suggests, based on pollen and charcoal data from the Netherlands, that human use of fire altered forest cover into the Holocene. In our discussion it was also noted that animals (mega-herbivores) were not really taken into account or discussed, even though animals probably had a big impact on the vegetation (e.g. see Bakker et al., 2016). Furthermore, another discussion point was the charcoal records that were used in the Kaplan et al. study, more specifically the number of cores. Kaplan et al. only used three cores to map out the effect of charcoal. It would be interesting to see what happens when more data from more cores is used. The Global Charcoal Database has a lot of data on European cores (c. 38% of the cores are from Europe) so there is a lot of potential for this.  All in all, the article by Kaplan et al. raised a lot of questions and opened up a nice discussion.


  • Bakker, E.S., Gill, J.L., Johnson, C.N., Vera, F.W.M., Sandom, C.J., Asner, G.P. & Svenning, J. (2016) Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 847-855. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1502545112
  • Kaplan, J.O., Pfeiffer, M., Kolen, J.C.A. & Davis, B.A.S. (2016) Large scale anthropogenic reduction of forest cover in Last Glacial Maximum Europe. Plos One 11, e0166726. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166726
  • Sevink, J., van Geel, B., Jansen, B. & Wallinga, J. (2018) Early Holocene forest fires, drift sands, and Usselo-type paleosols in the Laarder Wasmeren area near Hilversum, the Netherlands: Implications for the history of sand landscapes and the potential role of Mesolithic land use. CATENA 165, 286-298. DOI: 10.1016/j.catena.2018.02.016


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